Magazine Feature

Vietnamese Americans: Lessons in American History

A preview of a new online curriculum.
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Teaching Tolerance is pleased to announce a new partnership with the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance in the online release of its interdisciplinary curriculum, Vietnamese Americans: Lessons in American History.

The curriculum guide — complete with timelines, maps and primary sources — offers eight lesson plans, organized around important thematic issues pertinent not just to Vietnamese Americans, but to all Americans. Themes include Immigrants and Refugees, Hate Crimes, Human Rights and Freedom of Speech.

This excerpt offers Lesson 3: Voice and Identity, which is appropriate for use with students in grades 8-12. The activity supports the national social studies standards, Strand IV: Individual Development and Identity.


LESSON: Voice and Identity


History, Language Arts, Creative Arts, Multicultural Education



This lesson is designed for students of all backgrounds to explore the difficulties of self-expression and self-identity. Students will learn how an individual's identity can be shaped by others and how it can be influenced by his or her various social characteristics.

Through an examination of a poem written by a Vietnamese American and an artistic, expressive collage assignment, students will have a chance to explore their own personal struggles with crafting and expressing self-identity, especially when mediated by ethnic, class, gender and other dynamics.


What You Need

2-3 class periods
"Silence" by Tu-Uyen Nguyen
Homework Assignments 


How To Do It

Explain to the class the purpose of the lesson. Write the word "identity" on the board. Ask the students, "What is identity?" or "What is your definition of identity?"

Have students brainstorm definitions. Dictionaries have defined identity as "the collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognized or known," or as "the set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group."

Engage the students in a class discussion about the issue of identity. By doing so, students will have the ability to craft and express their self-identities as well as to deal with external factors that affect their identities in a healthy and productive manner.

Ask students the following questions:

  • How do you see yourself?
  • How do others see you?
  • What are some of the characteristics of your identity?
  • Are you unsure of any of the characteristics of your identity? If yes, what are they, and why are you unsure?
  • How do you express your self-identity and why?
  • Why do we need to express our self-identities?
  • How does our self-expression affect how others see us?

Remind the students that there are no right answers to these questions.

Bring out the idea that an individual's identity can be affected and shaped by:

  • Social characteristics (age, race, gender, etc.);
  • Where he/she lives;
  • The conditions he/she lives in (socioeconomic status, etc.);
  • His/her religious beliefs; and/or
  • His/her positions on social issues.

Students should see how such beliefs, characteristics and conditions can affect how the individual identifies himself/herself and how others perceive him/her.

Students should also come to understand that one's identity is not simply self-constructed, but is also shaped or imposed upon by others, including families, friends, classmates, society and other social influences.

Next, explain how to create and use a dialectical journal. A dialectical journal is a way for students to get involved with and to find meaning in a text. They do this by asking questions, making observations, forming associations, seeing patterns and creating hypotheses about situations and events.

As students read a text, they keep two-sided or split-page journals. On the left side, they write down particular words, passages, lines, quotes or anything they find interesting. On the right side of the page, students react to each passage by writing down an emotional response, question, insight, personal connection or intellectual reaction.

Distribute "Silence", and read the poem out loud. Ask students to begin marking the poem. Allow time for them to copy important lines or phrases into their journals and to make comments. Ask students to consider the issues of identity and self-expression addressed in the earlier class discussion.

Divide students into groups of three or four to share their journals entries. After each student has shared, the group should choose a passage they feel is enlightening or provocative.

Groups share and then discuss insights with the entire class. The teacher ensures that the discussion does not wander away from interpretations that can be justified from the text.

Vietnamese green vase

Homework Assignments

1. An Exploration of "Silence"

Ask students to paraphrase the poem — to express, in their own words, the poem's plain prose meaning. Students should consider how the author sees herself.

  • Did her self-perception change by the end of the poem?
  • How did her personal experiences shape her identity?
  • How do these experiences affect with whom or with which group(s) she identified?
  • How did others see her? What external factors impacted the author's identity?

Also, ask students to explore the author's use of imagery. How do the images relate to the theme of identity? How does the imagery enhance the poem? Does it add emotional color or associations to the plain sense? Is the poet's use of imagery consistent? Why is the consistent or inconsistent use of imagery important?

2. An Identity Collage

Students will create pieces of art to express, as best as possible, how they see themselves and how others see them. This assignment allows students the opportunity for self-analysis and self-expression.

Using newspapers, magazines, paint, pen markers or other materials, for example, a student can create a collage that visually expresses his or her identity. These materials could convey the student's clothing style or brands of choice, pop culture items or favorite bands, in addition to items relating to families, friends, ethnic communities, etc. Materials could also express a student's concerns or interests in contemporary social issues, such as religion, economics, politics and the environment.

Remind the students that their artwork should also reflect how others perceive them.

3. Assessment/Closure

Students can present their finished projects to the class and discuss them. Each student should share an evaluation of his or her own artwork.

Is the idea she wanted to show easy to see or understand? Did he show enough details to express what he had in mind? What moods does the finished product express? Could she make some part(s) more interesting or more expressive? Is he satisfied with his artwork? Did she enjoy making her artwork?

By this point, students have worked individually, in small groups and with the entire class. Give students time to reflect on their notes and homework. This reflection time is necessary for them to develop points of interests, a point of revelation or insight, a pattern or something they would like to explore further.

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